BIKE BOOM

As the humble bicycle makes a comeback, bike shops struggle to keep up with demand


 

AT A TIME WHEN MANY SMALL BUSINESS owners are struggling to keep their doors open, Dane

Iseman arrived to work on the first Monday morning in May to the opposite problem. The co-owner of Island Bicycles in Key West saw 15 bicycles already lined up for him to repair, and a second wave hit the moment the shop opened.

“Whereas normally we would see business begin to curtail a little bit around the end of April, we’ve been just gangbusters crazy,” he said. “It’s been a zoo. Every day is hair-on-fire busy.”

Bicycle shops were designated as essential businesses during Florida’s stay-at-home order. Anticipating business would nonetheless be slow, even on an island where many residents rely exclusively on bicycles for transportation because they don’t own cars, Mr. Iseman and his business partner cut their two employees back to part-time hours. The lull lasted only as long as it took Key West’s hospitality workers to rest up from a busy tourist season that ended abruptly.

An employee tunes up a bicycle at Island Bicycles in Key West. COURTESY OF ISLAND BICYCLES

An employee tunes up a bicycle at Island Bicycles in Key West. COURTESY OF ISLAND BICYCLES

“I’ve got everybody back on full time, and we’re actually considering expanding our hours to seven days a week, going 10-hour days instead of eight,” he said.

The increase in the bicycle business isn’t exclusive to the Keys. Bill Wallstedt, co-owner of The Bike Route Inc. in Fort Myers, said his business has doubled — or more — over last year’s spring business. Mark Dillon, president of the road-biking Naples Velo Bicycle Club, said he has noticed considerable activity at the bike shops he has visited recently as a customer.

“Given that it’s not season, I’m seeing more people than I thought I would at Fit & Fuel Cafe and Naples Cyclery,” Mr. Dillon said. “This time of year, you wouldn’t expect them. It’s surprising.”

He said it seemed a different crowd was in the shops, explaining that he overheard conversations in which store personnel were having to dispense such basic biking knowledge as tire pressure to customers.

Dane Iseman and Ryan Smith, co-owners of Island Bicycles in Key West. COURTESY OF ISLAND BICYCLES

Dane Iseman and Ryan Smith, co-owners of Island Bicycles in Key West. COURTESY OF ISLAND BICYCLES

“They’re talking to people who seem to have not ridden in a while,” Mr. Dillon said.

The idea that more people are getting back to biking is borne out by the customers Philipp Pfaffli, owner of PedelecSQB Electric Bicycle Shop in Punta Gorda, has seen in the last two months. Electric bicycles, or eBikes, provide a gentle power boost to help the rider who otherwise might not be in shape to start biking.

“There are people who come into the door, and they haven’t ridden a bicycle for 30 or 40 years,” he said, “and they want something where they don’t have to work much. And eBikes do exactly what they’ve asked for.”

Mr. Pfaffli said he has had customers drive from as far away as Marco Island and Sarasota to purchase his specialty bicycles.

Tom Rassiga, co-owner of Bicyclery in West Palm Beach, said interest in bicycling seemed to swell about a week after the stay-at-home order went into place. He said that as he and his wife walked their dog by the Intracoastal Waterway nightly, they noticed the number of people out walking and biking had nearly tripled.

 

“When people couldn’t go to the beach anymore, couldn’t go to the gyms anymore, couldn’t even take their boats out, the unrest started, and it appeared that the only thing people could do was either run, walk or ride a bike,” he said. “At that point, we noticed a big uptick in bicycle sales as well as service.”

Mr. Wallstedt also thought the lack of gym and beach access had prompted more interest in pedaling. Mr. Iseman described it as “replacement therapy” that provided socially distanced exercise for folks who’d been cooped up in their houses.

“A lot of the bike sales that we’re getting right now are the ‘I need to get out of the house and stretch my legs’ type of sales,” Mr. Iseman added.

One of those customers who has recently returned to bicycling is Matthew Sheehan, a realtor with Coastal Collection Real Estate Inc in Key West. He purchased a Specialized bicycle, one of the higher-end bike brands, from Mr. Iseman’s Island Bicycles.

Matthew Sheehan shows off the bicycle he purchased from Key West’s Island Bicycles. COURTESY PHOTO

Matthew Sheehan shows off the bicycle he purchased from Key West’s Island Bicycles. COURTESY PHOTO

“I bought a bike because the dogs were sick of taking 10 walks a day, and I was cooped up in the house, so I needed a different way to get out,” Mr. Sheehan said. “I got back to running as well, but that got old quickly. I needed a new outlet for getting outside while still maintaining a safe distance from other people, and this is the perfect way to do it.”

He said he had participated in triathlons about a decade ago, but he had gotten away from doing those events when life became busier.

“Just between work and family life, I just wasn’t making the time to do it,” Mr. Sheehan said. “I’d kind of shelved it for a while and just hadn’t been doing it. But we’ve had a lot of time to think and reflect since life slowed down during all of this, so now I hope to get back to eventually doing triathlons and stuff and figuring out time to do that type of thing. But I needed a new bike to go ahead and do it. I had my eye on the bike for a little while. They let me test drive it a few times over there at Island Bicycles, and finally one day I’m like, ‘Today’s the day I’m pulling the trigger.’ I went and got it, and I’ve been on it every day since.”

Philipp Pfaffli, owner of PedelecSQB Electric Bicycle Shop in Punta Gorda. LAURA TICHY-SMITH / FLORIDA WEEKLY

Philipp Pfaffli, owner of PedelecSQB Electric Bicycle Shop in Punta Gorda. LAURA TICHY-SMITH / FLORIDA WEEKLY

Supply chain’s damaged links

While bike sales have been brisk, most bicycles and bike parts come from manufacturers in China. This supply chain weakened when those overseas factories closed in January, so inventories at shops and warehouses are now uneven. Bikes in the $400 to $600 range are running low, while high-end bikes are still available. This has prompted shop owners to scramble for substitutes that are similar to their usual bike brands — but these inventories are also running low.

“One company I deal with, called Electra, is completely sold out,” Mr. Wallstedt said. “They’re playing tag football in their huge warehouse that has nothing in it. They’re probably 60 days out before they’ll have more bikes. Even discount stores like Walmart or Target are completely out of bikes. You’re better off to buy a used bike shop-quality bike than a new bike at a department store. They may look like something, but they’re typically not . . . because they’re built for price and there’s no quality involved at all.”

 

Mr. Wallstedt said he currently has enough new bikes to stay supplied for up to 60 days. The shop owners in West Palm Beach and Key West described similar inventory, backorder and substitution situations. As a higher-end item, Mr. Pfaffli said eBike availability has held steadier from his suppliers.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dillon hasn’t noticed inventory lacking at the two stores he regularly shops at in Naples.

“They have tons of bikes and people bustling around,” he said.

Beyond new bike inventories varying in availability and price point, repairing an older bicycle can be a more affordable option.

Fixing frenzy

Again, shops vary widely when it comes to repairs, with differing time frames as well as availability of parts and accessories.

“People are pulling bikes out of the garage, out of the backyard and out of the garbage pile, so supplies are running pretty lean,” Mr. Rassiga said, “especially for comfortable saddles.”

He said he already stocked a big inventory of repair parts, so he isn’t in too bad of shape. He has typically been doing a two-day turnaround on repairs, thanks in part to cutting shop hours from six to three days per week. He doesn’t take the other three days off; instead he uses that time to focus on performing repairs. Meanwhile, he has heard that other shops in Palm Beach County have waits as long as four weeks for repairs, and he said one other shop owner he knows has stopped accepting bikes for repair because he has run out of space to store the bikes.

Mr. Wallstedt said his shop is running about 10 days from the time a bike is dropped off to when they can look at it to start repairs. He has also cut the hours the store is open so that there is more time to focus on doing repairs, and he has one mechanic who works on bikes in the evenings while the store is closed. He has also found some repair parts and accessories becoming scarce, which has prompted him to buy from alternate suppliers.

“I tell people I feel like the new toilet paper dealer because everybody’s buying as much as they can get,” he said. “It’s just a very interesting time.”

Mr. Pfaffli, who repairs conventional bicycles as well as eBikes, said he has seen some slight delays on parts from suppliers but nothing that has proven too inconvenient.

Mr. Iseman said his staff is doing triage on bicycles outside the shop before accepting them for repair. He noted his shop’s reputation on the island for being able to “turn and burn” on repairs fairly quickly, but the volume of the last couple of months has proven a challenge to his staff’s speed.

“I come home sometimes, throw my head back and I intentionally overdo the whine and just go, ‘I don’t want to be essential anymore — I’m tired,’” Mr. Iseman said with a laugh.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dillon said he had no problems purchasing the inner tube he needed when he stopped by a bike shop in Naples, and he was unaware of any delays with repair services at shops in Collier County.

“I’d probably hear from our club members if there were issues at the bike shops,” he said.

Short ride, or long?

Mr. Rassiga noted how few cars had been on A1A when he’d ridden the road the last couple of months — up until the first weekend in May when more places began opening.

“It seems like people are itching to get out in their vehicles to go to the beaches, the parks and that kind of thing, so I don’t know how much longer the little bike boom is going to happen,” he said.

Mr. Dillon said things need to be done to keep the people who have recently joined or come back to biking engaged once more activities and diversions reopen. Before the stay-at-home order, his club organized group road rides that took place most days of the week, and he said the club hopes to resume the rides during Phase 2 of Florida’s reopening. Meanwhile, the club ran a virtual fundraiser ride to keep people engaged. The club had members log their miles during solo rides in order to raise funds for Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida. The club matched their members’ donations and presented a check for more than $10,000 to the food bank in mid-May.

However, the bike shop owners might appreciate the public’s newfound interest in biking settling into a steadier and calmer business pattern.

Even as business bustles, Mr. Wallstedt said he hopes that people don’t fall back into their old habits once things return to normal.

“My wish is that America has rediscovered cycling, and they’re not just going to go back to being a bunch of gym rats,” he said. “They’ll think, ‘We got our bikes out, got them fixed and, hey, this is fun outside with our kids, and there are a lot of nice places to ride. We can just keep riding.’

Mr. Sheehan has a daughter who is in the first grade, so buying a bicycle has given him the opportunity for a family activity they could participate in together. But bicycling also provides him the opportunity for some “me” time as well.

“She’s getting back to biking, too,” Mr. Sheehan said. “We had just gotten her up on two wheels when this [stayat home order] started. So, that’s the goal as well, to do family bicycle rides down the road so we can all get out together. But at the same time — for the time being — it’s a nice outlet for me to get out on my own just to have some time to myself.

“You should see the people out and about down here,” Mr. Sheehan continued. “There’s seldomly a person without a smile on their face if they’re out biking around. It’s just a nice feeling and I think that would keep me — even if I get off-course in the triathlon training — I’ll still be out there around sunset biking around just to see smiling faces.” ¦

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